Royal Beauty: Marie Antoinette…and Poison Ivy?

By Anita Sanchez

Poi­son ivy is, quite pos­si­bly, the most hat­ed plant on earth. So it’s hard to imag­ine that poi­son ivy was once an admired and sought-after gar­den plant. Yes, a gar­den plant — I’m not kid­ding. There was a time when poi­son ivy seeds were almost worth their weight in gold. 

Poi­son ivy wasn’t grown for its beau­ti­ful flow­ers (del­i­cate white blos­soms) or its berries that are pop­u­lar with win­ter­time birds. It was grown for its late sum­mer regal col­ors when the leaves turn from non­de­script green to gold, scar­let, and purple.

It’s hard to under­stand the intense enthu­si­asm with which vivid plants like poi­son ivy were hailed a few hun­dred years ago. The gar­den then was a green place, not the bright shout-out of col­or it is today. Fall in Great Britain and north­ern Europe was an espe­cial­ly dull affair when summer’s green leaves wilt­ed, turned brown, and fell off. So when Euro­pean colonists expe­ri­enced their first North Amer­i­can autumn, they were thrilled by the leafy fire­works. These includ­ed the orange and gold of maples, scar­let-tint­ed oaks and Vir­ginia creep­er, pur­ple ash trees and the rain­bow of poi­son ivy.

Exot­ic species from the Amer­i­c­as, Asia, and Africa — exotics” like petu­nias, peonies, daylilies, and zin­nias — began to be intro­duced into Euro­pean gar­dens. Poi­son ivy’s col­ors were a hit with wealthy lords and landown­ers and appeared in Eng­lish gar­dens as ear­ly as 1634. Even mon­archs were impressed with the ivy and it was plant­ed for decades in the fan­ci­est, most ornate gar­den of them all: the mag­nif­i­cent estate of Versailles. 

Louis XIV want­ed to turn Ver­sailles into a vast and impos­ing palace that would be a wor­thy home for the ulti­mate monar­chy. In keep­ing with the fash­ion of the time, roy­al gar­den­ers weren’t aim­ing for a nat­ur­al look. They want­ed to sub­due nature, to impose human order on wild­ness. The orig­i­nal rolling ter­rain was great­ly altered with hills flat­tened into ter­races, run­ning brooks turned into orna­men­tal foun­tains. Gar­dens were laid out with geo­met­ric pre­ci­sion. Trees were plant­ed in straight lines and trimmed at a uni­form height. Each exot­ic plant which graced the gar­den, includ­ing poi­son ivy, was set apart from its neigh­bor. The grounds of Ver­sailles became the epit­o­me of clas­sic French style. The con­trolled and reg­i­ment­ed gar­dens sym­bol­ized the monarch’s total con­trol over his sub­jects, and were a hor­ti­cul­tur­al tes­ta­ment to the mas­tery of man over nature.

But poi­son ivy is a plant that’s hard to mas­ter. Clip­ping the branch­es, trim­ming its untidy foliage, and coax­ing the fuzzy vine to run in pre­arranged pat­terns was a haz­ardous task. Many roy­al gar­den­ers must have been on the los­ing side in the bat­tle with poi­son ivy. Yet as ear­ly as 1759 the irri­tat­ing plant is repeat­ed­ly list­ed in the roy­al gar­den inven­to­ries of Versailles.

Undoubt­ed­ly the most famous inhab­i­tant of Ver­sailles was not poi­son ivy, but the doomed and beau­ti­ful queen, Marie Antoinette who adored plants and ordered rar­i­ties from around the world. Dozens of species of Amer­i­can plants graced her pri­vate apart­ment. But she was bored and frus­trat­ed by the per­snick­ety rules of court eti­quette. No won­der then that her pre­ferred style of gar­den­ing was the uncorset­ed, nat­ur­al look. The care­free queen loved the newest type of gar­den known as the Anglo-Chi­nese” style which was becom­ing all the rage. Inspired by nat­u­ral­is­tic Ori­en­tal gar­dens, Eng­lish gar­den­ers had embraced an appar­ent­ly care-free style of gar­den­ing — which was actu­al­ly no less planned and reg­i­ment­ed than the French geo­met­ric style. Gar­den­ers took down walls. Trees and hedges were no longer trimmed into unnat­ur­al shapes, but allowed to grow in nat­ur­al forms. Flow­ers inter­min­gled and shrubs were loose­ly arranged in fra­grant groves where vines draped over the branch­es. Euro­pean gar­dens mim­ic­ked the wilder­ness of North Amer­i­ca — poi­son ivy and all. Free­dom was invad­ing gar­dens, echo­ing the grow­ing push for free­dom that was sweep­ing Europe.

To find out more about poi­son ivy’s weird his­to­ry as a gar­den plant — and its remark­able ben­e­fits for wildlife — please check out my new book: In Praise of Poi­son Ivy: The Secret Virtues, Aston­ish­ing His­to­ry and Dan­ger­ous Lore of the World’s Most Hat­ed Plant. http://​www​.indiebound​.org/book…

Summer 2016

Volume 34 , Number 3

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